In fifth place, and garnering 15% of the vote, Patriots nation believes that tight end is the fifth most important position to address in free agency.
I'm entirely on board.
I don't think you would be too hard pressed to find a Patriots fan with the belief that the depth at tight end is a major concern. In fact, if we polled "what position needs the most help this off-season" I wouldn't doubt that tight end would come in first place with over half the vote.
But we're talking about free agency, man. Free agency! And in a draft that's ripe with plenty of talent at tight end, free agency just isn't the most cost effective venue to address this need.
In fact, it may be the worst place to fill this hole.
What you'll find are both of Patriots pending free agent tight ends towards the bottom of the list. Michael Hoomanawanui is ranked 20/30 by Rotoworld and 26/37 on a per-snap basis by Pro Football Focus. Matthew Mulligan is 29/30 on Rotoworld and 22/37 by PFF.
Neither are options you'd want to rely on next season, even if one of them could return in a certain capacity. If you were to look into free agency for a viable option at TE2, behind Rob Gronkowski, the prospects don't get much better.
Only six of free agent tight ends received positive scores by Pro Football Focus. There are no hidden gems, or players who have a high grade on a low number of snaps; there's just nothing to be found.
Rotoworld's top tight end still available is their 3rd ranked Jermichael Finley, who is coming off of neck surgery and was under the belief he might never play again. Their fifth ranked player is John Carlson, he of three concussions and recently cut two seasons into a five year deal.
There's a dearth of talent in free agency and the prospects are only getting bleaker.
Jimmy Graham, the top tight end, was franchised by the Saints. Dennis Pitta signed a five year deal with the Ravens. Dante Rosario, the possible hidden germ with PFF, already signed back with the Bears. Ben Hartsock, a road grading Alge Crumpler-like tight end, is turning 34 this off-season.
There are two other players with positive grades by PFF. One is Bear Pascoe, who is expected to sign back with the Giants. The other is Kellen Winslow, who is going through the legal system for, ahem, "public lewdness."
But that doesn't mean there's no potential in free agency. It just means that it'll be much harder to come by.
There's the Bills Scott Chandler, who is built in a Jake Ballard-like frame, who would make a quality TE2 for any team (but the Bills might retain him). He has four touchdowns in five games against the Patriots.
There's the Texans Garrett Graham; he's not a blocker, but he's a movable piece that could complement the Patriots multiple fronts (and the Packers appear to be interested).
And there's Dustin Keller, a Patriots killer who racked up the third most receiving yards against the Patriots during his span with the Jets. Keller is one of two players (Davone Bess) with 40+ receptions against the Patriots between 2008 and 2012. He's tied with Chandler in touchdowns, having 4 against the Patriots (albeit over twice as many games). Keller is coming off a disastrous ACL/PCL/MCL injury, but he's a very cheap option.
The Patriots will have to do some digging in order to find value at tight end in free agency; waiting for the draft, or even the undrafted free agents, would make much more sense.